Foster not chosen for Trustee ballot, student activists disappointed

Nathan Foster (LA '18) poses for a portrait outside of Tisch Library on Sept. 18, 2018. Madeleine Oliver / The Tufts Daily

Nathan Foster (LA ‘18) ended his campaign for an alumni trustee seat on the Tufts University Board of Trustees on Dec. 18, after not being selected for the ballot by the Nominating Committee of the Tufts University Alumni Council.

“While I respect this decision, it just shows the need for real democratic reforms,” Foster said in a video posted on his campaign’s Facebook page, announcing the end of his campaign.

Deliberations of the Nominating Committee are confidential, according to Stephen Wermiel, the president of the Alumni Council.

Foster had launched his campaign in September 2018, and wrote in a Sept. 18 op-ed in the Daily that he was running to make the Board more democratic and to address the increasing cost of attending Tufts.

Foster’s campaign attracted significant support in the Tufts community. An endorsement letter posted on Foster’s campaign Facebook garnered 180 signatures from current students and alumni, according to documents provided by Foster.

Thirteen student groups on campus including Tufts Progressive Alliance, Tufts Labor Coalition, and Tufts Democrats also endorsed Foster, according to a separate endorsement letter reviewed by the Daily.

The Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate passed resolution S. 18-10 endorsing Foster on Oct. 14 by a vote of 25-3, with two members abstaining. 

Foster applied to become an alumni trustee, who, according to the Tufts Alumni and Friends website, comprise 10 of the 40 members of the Board. The application requires a potential candidate to be nominated or self-nominated to run in the election. Applicants are considered and nominees are chosen by the Nominating Committee, a 10-12 member group composed of members of the Alumni Council, an elected body of 250 alumni.

The Nominating Committee chooses two nominees for each available alumni trustee seat, according to Wermiel. The seats currently held by Laurie Gabriel (J’76) and Hugh R. Roome III (A’74, F’77, FG’80, FG’80) are up for election, so Foster was competing for one of four nominations for a place on the ballot that will be emailed to all Tufts alumni in February.

Wermiel told the Daily that 19 applicants had been considered, including Foster, and that Kenneth Fan (E’01, F’07), David Meyers (A’96), Lori Roth (J’86) and Sonja Weinkopf-Bartlett (J’90) had been selected.

Wermiel informed Foster that he had not been selected for the ballot in a Dec. 13 email, reviewed by the Daily. The email said that this year was more competitive for candidates hoping to be Alumni Trustee than recent years. 

Foster criticized the nominee selection process as undemocratic.

“I think that now a lot more people are aware that even for this relatively small number of Board of Trustee seats that are technically elected, the election is not the most important part of the process,” Foster said.

Jonah O’Mara Schwartz, a Class of 2019 TCU senator and one of the co-authors of Senate resolution that endorsed Foster, said he joined the Senate to make change at Tufts but has been consistently stymied by the inaccessibility of the Board, and that the themes of Foster’s campaign had really resonated with him.

O’Mara Schwartz explained that Foster’s failure to make the ballot was disappointing but not unexpected, due to the criteria used by the Nominating Committee to make selections for the ballot.

“Even to become an Alumni Trustee rep, which is supposed to be one of the accessible ways to get on the Board, you have to either have a lot of money, have a long history of donating to the school or have to be well into your career, which usually means that you are a lot older,” he said.

Wermiel defended the selection criteria and said that while the specifics of Nominating Committee deliberations are confidential, alumni involvement and commitment to representing alumni were the principal factors in this year’s decision.

Wermiel did confirm that donation history is taken into account.

“I think it would be a bad thing if there was a litmus test,” Wermiel said. “That would be wrong, but that’s not the case. We do expect people to have donated to the university, but there’s not a threshold contribution amount or requirement amount.” 

Kayleigh Milano, a member of Reform the Board Tufts, a student advocacy group fighting to increase student, faculty and staff accessibility to the Board of Trustees, said that the decision reflected negatively on the Nominating Committee and the Alumni Council more generally.

“I think that it shows a certain degree of stubbornness and a desire to protect the status quo when someone who has substantial support from the community he’s running to represent is rejected on the basis of the same undemocratic principles he’s running to overturn,” Milano said.

Wermiel stressed that these trustees are reserved to represent alumni, not current students.

“That doesn’t mean that the concerns that the students have about the direction of the university are not valid, or the concerns that students may have about the Board of Trustees are not valid, but that’s not what we’re electing — we’re electing people to represent the interests of alumni, not the interest of current students,” he said.

According to Wermiel, ballots for the election are sent to around 75,000 Tufts alumni each year with a response rate that averages between five and six percent, although the 2018 election saw a 9.9 percent participation rate.

Noah Weinflash, a TCU Senate Student Trustee Representative who sits on the University Advancement Committee, said Foster would have brought a new perspective to a board that is drawn primarily from a business background. He also said that the impact on board reform would be modest.

“I think that having Nathan on the Board of Trustees would be an improvement [to the work of the Board] rather than a complete departure or change from the way that the Board currently operates,” Weinflash said.

In his email to Foster, Wermiel wrote that he wanted to appoint Foster as an associate member of the Alumni Council to represent an alumni interest group.

He cautioned, however, that he was not sure if appointing Foster would be allowed under the bylaws of the organization, and told the Daily that if that is the case, he intends to appoint Foster to serve on an Alumni Council committee.

Foster said he will accept either offer and added that he does not begrudge the committee for not having selected him.

Despite not having made the ballot, Foster was pleased that his campaign brought more attention to the Board of Trustees. 

“I think that the days when an an institution like Tufts which has such strong democratic values can be run by an unaccountable Board that’s largely elected on the basis of wealth are over,” he said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that the response rate for ballots sent to alumni was 7.9 percent. The correct rate is 9.9 percent. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily regrets this error.


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